Gap Inc. will stop scheduling on-call shifts for its employees by the end of September, the latest retailer to end a practice that critics say creates instability in workers’ lives.
On-call scheduling requires employees to remain available to work, often not finding out if they’re needed – or will be paid – until a few hours before their shift. The practice came under fire in April when New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman opened an inquiry into Gap Inc. and 12 other large retailers to determine if their uncompensated on-call shifts were in violation of a state law that requires employers to pay their workers four hours’ worth of wages, even if the employee is sent home early.
Gap Inc. did not mention the inquiry in a late August blog post that announced their decision – instead attributing the change to internal evaluations of scheduling practices, and to a pilot program the company launched in July 2014 with UC Hastings’ Center for WorkLife Law. The post also says that the company will provide employees with their work schedules 10 to 14 days in advance by early 2016.
“We recognize that flexibility, inclusive of consistent and reliable scheduling, is important to all of our employees,” wrote Andi Owen, the Global President for Banana Republic and a member of Gap Inc.’s executive management team, in the blog post. The scheduling changes will apply to all five of Gap Inc.’s brands – Athleta, Banana Republic, Gap, Intermix and Old Navy – which operate a total of 15 stores in Midtown West, and employ over 60,000 workers in the U.S.
On-call shifts are, in part, enabled by software that lets employers closely monitor sales patterns, and “skim workers’ hours in order to cater to these fluctuations in business,” according to a 2014 study conducted by the City University of New York, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the Retail Action Project, a union initiative founded in 2005.
Employees are required to block off the time of an on-call shift, but if they’re not called in, they’re not paid. This unpredictability makes it difficult to hold a second job, coordinate child or elder support, or attend classes – and, though Gap Inc. raised its minimum wage to $10 per hour earlier this year, there’s no guarantee of how many hours a week a call-in employee will work. For Nala Simone, a 24-year-old former employee of the Banana Republic in SoHo and the Gap in Chelsea, the on-call shifts made her income so unreliable she was forced to find another job. She said she is “overjoyed” that Gap Inc. is discontinuing on-call shifts as it will free employees from having to arrange their “whole day waiting for a shift that may not happen.”
“My guess is that this strategy of cost optimization has never worked out particularly well in practice,” Mark Cohen, an adjunct professor and the director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, said in an email. Its “elimination may very well result in improved sales associate productivity simply because Gap’s work force will be less at odds with their employer and more motivated to do a better job.”
The company would benefit from reduced employee turnover, and customers stand to gain “from less stressed and more attentive staff,” said Susan Scafidi, a law professor and founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, in an email. The competition in the apparel industry, Scafidi added, will likely stop Gap Inc. from having customers absorb the cost of increased wages at the cash register.
An uptick in worker earnings, however, could be offset by a reduction in the number of employees. Employers like Gap Inc. “have the power to err on the side of under- rather than over-staffing if they are concerned about labor costs,” said Scafidi.
Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch, both named in Schneiderman’s inquiry, announced earlier this summer that they would also end their use of on-call shifts. Schneiderman’s office declined to comment on whether the other ten employers have responded to the inquiry, but said in a statement: “We commend Gap for taking an important step to make their employees’ schedules fairer and more predictable.”
For some workers’ rights advocates, the key word is “step,” because they say that Gap Inc. workers still need a union to advocate for their interests in the absence of regulatory pressure.
“This is a great first step, and we applaud [the Gap] for making it. We want to be very clear that it didn’t come without a fight,” said Rachel Laforest, the Director of the Retail Action Project, adding that Gap Inc. has been “virulently anti-union” and “balked” when attempts were made to unionize their workers in the past. Gap Inc. did not return requests for comment made via voicemail and email.
“Unfortunately, most large corporations have given us little reason to trust they will act in the best interests of employees,” said Stephanie Luce, a Labor Studies professor at CUNY who authored the 2014 study with the union and its initiative, in an email. “Employers could fire them with little penalty for talking about their rights or insisting on a fair schedule.”
In Gap Inc.’s blog post, Owen noted that the company’s change in scheduling policies follows their 2014 decision to increase minimum pay to $10 per hour by 2015, a move that was praised by President Obama at the time. “We know we have more to do, but we are committed to addressing these issues,” wrote Owen.